We’re creating a new language around women’s lives.
Culture of late is experiencing a push to reframe single people as they really are: confident, fulfilled and empowered. People are increasingly remaining single by choice, report finding great satisfaction in their decision, and are calling on brands and marketers to keep up.
In No One Tells You This, her memoir on singledom published in 2018, author Glynnis MacNicol shatters the idea of unhappy adult singlehood. MacNicol penned a widely shared column in the New York Timesfor the release of her book, dubbed: “I’m in My 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?” In it she wrote: “Since I turned 40, I’ve encountered disbelief that I could possibly be enjoying my own life. But then there’s the other unexpected gift of this age: just how little concern I have for others’ opinions.”
Below, MacNicol catches up with us about the financial opportunities that a growing single population presents for brands, the emerging discourse of singlehood, and the importance of this cultural revolution.
What prompted you to write No One Tells You This?
I turned 40 and I thought, “I can no longer see myself through what’s in the culture. There’s no version of my life that’s out there.” And that felt overwhelming, and a little bit terrifying—and then I got really angry.
I was seeing all these women lead similar lives to me, and yet I couldn’t find any representation in the cultural narrative. You disappear. There are no television shows, no movies, no stories. We don’t really have a way of talking about women’s lives outside of marriage or babies. I always joke that’s how the sitcom ends—you know the show is about to be cancelled when the main characters have a wedding or a baby.
We don’t have a language around women’s lives, to value them outside of these two institutions. I think women who are in even the best marriages, and fully invested in being mothers and enjoying it to the extreme, are also frustrated with the narrow language we have around their lives. Because it’s not as if women cease to be individual, fully formed people once they acquire a spouse or a baby. Those are just two aspects of them. Since the book was published, I’ve heard just as much from married women as I’ve heard from single women, which is quite interesting.
I was really determined, in telling this story, not to create a false dichotomy—single women versus married women. I was trying to add some new language to the story around women’s lives. I was trying to add another version.
Do you think things have started to change?
I think that I just happened to be a little bit early out of the gate. In the United States, women couldn’t get credit cards or bank accounts in their own name until 1974. I was born in 1974, and I am a member of this first wave of women whose entire lives have existed in a world where women have increasingly been able to dictate what they want their lives to look like financially. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’m starting to see all these things come up beside me.
How do you think being single impacts finances?
I do think there’s a penalty for being single. I live in New York City. I feel this in my rent, in my bills, and the penalty of my being a single woman in terms of health insurance. As a freelancer, I pay for my healthcare out of pocket. And that means that I pay $600 a month just to be able to go to the doctor for one medical a year, and to have some tests. I have many friends who are also freelancers, but they’re on their spouse’s health insurance, and that is not an option available to me and many people.
When I travel there’s a penalty for shouldering the cost of a hotel room by myself. We live in a capitalist society that’s geared towards couples.
The more we see women doing things alone, the more a market develops around that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing financial institutions rearrange around relationship status. For example, I could sign on to a healthcare plan with my long-term friend. There’s a solution to this that recognizes the reality of long-term relationships outside of marriage. But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
If I was in the financial arena, I would be looking to create what people like me need—that’s a huge market. It seems to be an untapped market that has so many benefits. But we need enough people complaining for someone to create it.
Do you think the idea that marriage is the ultimate goal is changing?
I’ve moved past the moment where everyone is in the wedding phase and I’ve moved into the seven-year anniversary and/or filing for divorce stage. And that really tempers the tendency to think of marriage as some sort of solution to a problem.
For most of history women had to be married in order to survive. They had to be within an infrastructure of marriage in order to feed and clothe themselves. We have all of these narratives that have arisen out of that necessity, to make it look good. I think it’s useful to ask yourself who is telling the story and who benefits the most from it. Because women have not been telling these stories, women have not been writing books for thousands of years, men have. And who benefits from marriage and women in the home without any agency? It’s not women.
This idea that marriage makes the woman whole… it does seem like gaslighting. It’s hard sometimes to see the ending outside of a wedding or a baby. It’s like learning an entirely new language. Can you have an intelligent conversation with someone if they’re speaking a language you’ve never heard? No. It takes years to develop the nuance and the understanding. I think that’s what’s happening now: we’re creating a new language around women’s lives. It’s happening in fits and starts. Sometimes it looks good, and sometimes it’s: wow, they did a really bad job with this. It’s messy, it’s hard, and it’s new.
Do you think culture hasn’t yet caught up with the reality of people’s lives?
Every generation pushes the story forward a little bit. But we’re still referencing Sex and the Cityand Bridget Jones, television shows and novels and movies from 20 years ago. That we are still referencing them as storylines to talk about women’s lives in 2019 says to me that we haven’t done anything since then to push this story forward.
That is not a reflection on how problematicSex and the Cityis or how problematic Bridget Jones is; there’s lots of truth in Sex and the City, and there’s lots of truth in Bridget Jones. I think the problem is why we haven’t progressed beyond them.
Are there any single role models who stand out to you?
One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I couldn’t think of a person whose life I wanted to emulate. It’s very difficult to think of a character in a film, or a character in a novel. The characters I most empathized with were all the female characters from books I read as a child. The only time we let women have agency and go on adventures is before puberty. Once puberty hits, it’s like the marriage aisle or the birth canal, that’s how it goes. So I would always return to my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder. We don’t see these characters replicated in grown-up lives. And that, to me, was devastating and frustrating.
I see women in my life who I admire and cherish living this life, and I take pointers from them. Take Cindy Gallop. She said to me, “I can’t wait to die alone.” She’s just so energetic, and optimistic, and joyful and so thoroughly herself and invested in her own life. Being around her is extraordinarily invigorating and I really value her and the way she talks about her life.
Cindy Gallop is one person that I am very happy and thankful that I know, but she is not the same as a Bridget Jones or a Carrie Bradshaw. She’s not a cultural reference that we can all point to. She’s not an example that a successful man at the dinner table would reference when talking to me about my life, and she’s not an example that my friends’ mothers can look to at a wedding when they run into me and I don’t have someone with me. So that’s what we’re missing.
A lot of people who bought my book said, “I bought this to send to my mother, so I don’t have to get such a hard time when I come home for the holidays.” And I’m so sympathetic to that, because when everyone’s making you feel bad about your life, how do you feel good about it? It’s so hard. Even if you love your life, it’s still so hard. That’s what we’re missing. We need the 2019 version of those figures, in a broad scale. it’s problematic that we have to reference an individual in our own lives as an example of this.
And that was part of my goal with the book—to fill that space in any way possible, and to maybe open the door a crack to other people who wanted to walk through with their own versions of this. My version is just one version. Let’s keep them coming.
Main image: Glynnis MacNicol. Photography by Naima Green